In presenting the picture of Martin Luther I want to be completely objective, and rely on the authority of some of the most reputable scholars available, many of whom are non-Catholics.
During the last century, especially since 1883, the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of Luther, there have been two Luthers – one of panegyric, romance and fiction, and the other the Luther of fact. Since the 450th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation is being commemorated this year, these TWO Luthers are still being presented. Only recently an ardent clerical Catholic ecumenist wrote that the Catholic Church now admits that it has been wrong all along about Martin Luther, and that he really deserves to be canonized as a saint. On the other hand, most historians presenting facts give quite a different account. These facts about Luther I will briefly present, and let you be the judge.
Dr. Guilday, former history professor at the Catholic University, summed up the work of Luther’s life this way: “The cleavage of Luther from the Catholic Church was not caused by opposition to the Papacy, but by the false idea, which seems to have haunted him unto obsession – his total impotency under temptation. It was this negation of the moral value of human action – this denial of man’s ability to overcome sin – which led to his famous doctrine of the worthlessness of good works. The only hope he had was a blind reliance on God, whose Son, Jesus Christ, had thrown around him the cloak of his own merits. From this starting point it was facilis descensus Averni. Opposition to all good works, and particularly to Monastic regulations and to Indulgences, led to opposition to authority – Episcopal and Papal.”
The facts of Luther’s life bear out the truth of this statement.
Martin Luther was born in 1483; he was the second oldest of eight children. The discipline in the home appears to have been strict by modern standards, but this could hardly have affected his later life, as some contend. He was a good student, and his father decided that his son should study law, and thus bring some prominence to the family which was very poor. The first four years of Luther’s studies were devoted to liberal arts, principally to the study of Latin, Greek, philosophy and ethics.
At the age of twenty-two he began his study of law, but discontinued after a few weeks, and decided, against his father’s will, to enter the monastic life. Luther gave as the reason for the change the fear for his salvation – caused by a bolt of lightening which killed a companion at his side. He said it was a sign from heaven, and he made a vow to enter a monastery, if his life were spared. Most scholars express doubt about this being the reason, and are of the opinion that Luther had long been pondering this move, and the episode about the vow provided him the occasion for carrying it out. He did not like the study of law anyway.
After one year in the novitiate Luther made his solemn profession at Erfurt, the Augustinian monastery. Some historians insist that “this was the rashest act of his whole life and certainly the most serious,” that Luther had not given any indication of having a vocation to the priesthood or to the religious life (Msgr. Philip Hughes, A History of the Church, Vol. III, p. 505). Nine months later he was ordained a priest, and then began his study of theology. After two years he was sent to Wittenberg to lecture on philosophy and theology.
What kind of man had Luther been up to this time? All agree that he was a tireless worker, but moody, fear-ridden, impulsive. He tried hard to be a good religious, but he found not that peace for which he had come to the monastery; the anguish of former years, the fear of losing his soul, still remained. Luther frequently spoke of his temptations – the worst of which he says, were not carnal; “evil thoughts, hatred of God, blasphemy, despair, unbelief – THESE were the main temptations. I did penance, but despair did not leave me.”
It is quite clear that a large part of this mental and spiritual state of Luther, was the result of the errors in philosophy and religion being taught at the monastery at that time. A “new religion” was proclaimed, which was mostly a revival of the false teachings of men like Ockham and Wyclif of two centuries before. These heretics had taught that the Bible is the only source of faith – that Christ was the only head of the Church to the exclusion of the Papacy. Some taught a sort of predestination; that priest and laity are all equal – all of which theories Luther later adopted. But always back of Luther’s search was to find a way to overcome his fear of damnation.
In 1512 Luther’s Augustinian superior gave him complete charge of the school of divinity at Wittenberg. From that time on began a complete change in Luther’s life. He began to be lax in his spiritual life. “I seldom have time,” he wrote to a friend, “for reciting the Divine Office and celebrating Mass, and then, too, I have my peculiar temptation from the flesh, the world and the devil.” He gave the excuse of being too busy with preaching, studying, answering letters, administrative affairs, etc. – the incipient cause of the spiritual ruin of many a priest – “too busy” with many things to take care of the needs of his soul.
Although Luther was later to coin such phrases as, “invincible concupiscence,” and “sin boldly but believe more boldly,” and to marry (?) a nun despite his monastic and priestly vows; although he was to speak with the most revolting coarseness of sex-life in general, and his own relations with his wife (?) in particular – it was not his body that was the seat of his real trouble and at times almost drove him insane. Rather, it was his intensely active imagination, which pictured the anger of God and His punishment of sin so vividly that he could scarcely look on the crucifix. Thus, the one obsession of his life was to find a way for believing that his soul was predestined to be saved beyond all doubt.
About 1514 he thought he found the solution to his problem in the writings of Ockham. Peter Ockham was an English Franciscan friar, whose writings were condemned by the Church in 1347. His errors pertained principally to his ideas about the nature of God and of the constitution of the Church. He taught that what God willed was all-important – man’s will did not count. God could as well command a man to hate Him, as to love Him; HE could choose to damn the innocent and to save the guilty. Sin could co-exist in the soul along with grace. Briefly, salvation depends entirely on God’s will, no matter what man is or does. Luther meditating on these ideas, concluded that if what Ockham said was POSSIBLE with God, and were the actual way God operated, then his problem was solved; and he proceeded to formulate his doctrines accordingly.
Luther, after much study of Ockham’s teaching and his own problem, formulated these propositions: (1) Man, because of original sin, is wholly and forever corrupted; therefore, he is incapable of ever doing any good, meritorious work. (2) Man’s own sinfulness can have no effect upon his eternal destiny; once he is clad in the robes of Christ’s merits, he is accepted by God as justified, and no sin committed by such a man, can ever give the devil any hold on him.
From these propositions Luther deduced that the necessity of good works for salvation is a sham; penances, indulgences are not only useless, but blasphemous; prayers of petition and the whole sacramental system must be discarded. And so the need of a Church and priesthood disappears.
It was to defend these doctrines that Luther, in 1517, nailed to the door of the Wittenberg church the 95 theses – the question of indulgences included. Thus, Luther made the matter of indulgences, which was at the time a very live issue, the occasion for publicizing his new doctrines. This episode was NOT the beginning of the revolution against the Church; for 200 years this had been brooding. Luther only brought before the Christian world his new version of the Christian dispensation. Long before Rome’s solemn condemnation of Luther’s doctrines in 1521, his doctrines had been discussed and fought over in every university in Christendom. Nor had Luther at this time any intention of breaking away from the Church. When, in 1520, Luther was cited by Pope Leo X to answer the charges of teaching heresy, he replied: “Before God and man, I have never wished to attack either the Roman Church or the Pope, and today I have even less intention to do so.”
But in 1517 Luther’s doctrine was not yet complete. He had to find some BASIS for it – some AUTHORITY. Since the philosophy of Aristotle and the theological teaching of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas did not fit into his ideas of Christianity, he discarded them as “out of date,” and adopted the teaching of the Mystics. This proved very dangerous to Luther with his wild imagination, as it has been to everyone who has not based his religion on the solid doctrines of the Church. Luther himself expresses his ideas thus: “Christianity is nothing but a perpetual exercise in FEELING that you have no sin, although you committed sin, but that your sins are attached to Christ,” meaning “covered by CHRIST’S merits, not your own, you have none.” Then he coined that famous phrase from St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans (3:28): “Salvation is obtained by FAITH ALONE.”
In this there were two fundamental errors. (1) the word “ALONE” is not in the original text of Scripture. (2) HE took this sentence out of context, as so many sects since have done, and ignored dozens of texts stating clearly that, NOT FAITH ALONE, but also GOOD WORKS are necessary for salvation. For example, Christ declared in Matthew 19:17: “If thou wilt have life (salvation), keep the Commandments.” When someone asked Luther about the epistle of St. James declaring that “faith without works is dead,” Luther replied, “it is straw, – not authentic.”
So, too, the legend that Luther was the first to translate the Bible into the German language and gave it to the people, is contrary to all the evidence. Luther DID make a copy of the Bible during the ten months that he lived incognito in Wartberg castle for fear of being killed by his enemies, but he probably copied it from an old German Bible. It was not a translation from the original text of Greek or Hebrew, since Luther was not familiar enough with these languages – nor could he get any help. Besides, there were literally thousands of Bibles in Latin and German existing at this time. It would seem that Luther wanted a Bible to suit his new doctrine, changing and omitting parts of it to conform – hence he wrote one.
As time went on, Luther became more bold, more proud, more vulgar. He thought himself inspired – that only HE spoke the truth. When he was excommunicated by Leo X in 1521, he became very bitter toward the Papacy, and called it the agent of the devil – the anti-Christ – and he burned the document in the public square.
For Luther the Church was an invisible entity – purely spiritual, comprised only of the souls DESTINED to be saved and subject to God alone; the Papacy and the Hierarchy were founded by Satan; they have neither authority to make laws nor to enforce them. But since the power to direct and govern the faithful in faith and morals must come from SOME source, Luther placed this prerogative in the ruling prince – the State. By what authority? LUTHER’S AUTHORITY. The State is God’s sole agent, he said; it is supreme; it can make laws governing the Church and rescind them; it can punish any infringement, even with death. King Henry VIII acted on this teaching of Luther.
Since man is all evil, he can gain no merit for salvation by good works; therefore, there is no need of the Sacraments nor of priests. “The Mass is simply devilish wickedness,” stated Luther. Likewise, since man has no free will in deciding his eternal destiny, the Commandments have no meaning; God decides whether a man is destined to be saved. Faith alone saves; but how to acquire this saving faith Luther never made clear beyond saying that one must keep on believing until he is inwardly convinced that he is saved – all depending on feeling – nothing definite.
But it was in his moral conduct and teaching that Luther was foul-mouthed, scurrilous – even obscene. Most historians declined to print his vile talk. His slogan “Sin bravely, but believe more bravely,” gives the clue to his thinking. He advised priests and nuns to marry as he had done; he urged the State to abolish all monasteries and convents, and many States did. He preached that chastity outside of marriage is an abomination – that the vow of chastity is worse than adultery. He counselled concubinage and immorality for husbands – also divorce and remarriage at the husband’s will.
In his “Table Talks” he speaks jokingly of his sex relations with the mother of his six children. “I confess, he writes, “that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it is not contradicted in Scripture. – I myself could not and would not abstain from impurity.”
Nearly all historians agree that Luther was the instigator of the horrible peasants’ insurrection, and Luther admits it. Over 100,000 peasants were killed, but Luther was not disturbed. One historian remarks that he celebrated the event by marrying the nun, Catherine Bora.
Some insist that Luther reformed the Church; he did NOT reform it – he tried to DESTROY it as far as he could, and left a worse spiritual and moral order. Unquestionably, the Church needed reforming, and Luther did a good turn for the Church insofar as his preaching and writing aroused the Pope and Bishops from their complacency, and the Council of Trent resulted. Nor is the fact that the Church has been broken up into some 400 sects, all contending that theirs is the one true Church that Christ founded – any credit to Luther.
Luther toward the end of his life suffered much from disease; he was filled with remorse and often yielded to fits of anger, sparing neither his wife (?) nor his friends. One of his regrets was that he had said Mass for 15 years. In his last sermon he sharply criticized the monks for refusing to discard their habits. On his deathbed he answered to the question put to him by a disciple, that he persevered in his doctrines. On the wall, near his bed, the doctor found this inscription in Latin: “I was your plague while I lived; when I die I shall be your death, O Pope.”
“The least saintly of men,” an English Protestant Bishop said of Luther – hardly a worthy candidate for canonization! Do you agree?